Philadelphia was experiencing a housing crisis before COVID arrived. The Philadelphia Interfaith Hospitality Network (PIHN) has been meeting the needs of the community with its holistic model since the start of the pandemic.
Philadelphia was experiencing a housing crisis before COVID arrived, and the Philadelphia Interfaith Hospitality Network (PIHN) has been meeting the needs of the community with its holistic model since the start of the pandemic.
PIHN has been serving the Northwest Philadelphia region for almost 30 years by using places of worship, such as churches, synagogues and mosques, to provide shelter for families experiencing homelessness.
During its first years as an emergency shelter in Mt Airy, the Network developed a method to maintain contact with families who graduate from its program.
“We’re really big on continuing to provide for our alumni families after they leave our shelter program. As long as families are interested, we’ll be there for them.” said Bob Byrne, Director of Operations at PIHN.
The organization began accepting material donations like furniture or household goods and distributing them to alumni families as the program grew in size.
“We made a decision to open these same services to anyone in the community that comes to us,” he said. "We actually found that we were getting so many donations that we could help a larger community.”
Over the past five years, PIHN has developed a rent assistance program by providing at-risk families with private funding to cover the costs of maintaining their current place of residence.
The program has grown to become larger than the original shelter program that the Network was founded on.
“We started helping families and realized that the best way to help families deal with being at risk of homelessness is to prevent the homelessness in the first place,” Executive Director Rachel Falkove said.
Shelter used to be a step before getting affordable housing, she said, but as housing has become less affordable for many in the city, people were experiencing lengthier stays.
“When I first came here 20 years ago, they would average around two months per stay,” Falklove said. “By the time we started our prevention program, they were going on a year before we could get them into housing that they could hold on to.”
While the pandemic has put more at risk of homelessness, the Network’s rent assistance program helped 181 households pay back rent to prevent eviction in 2020, an increase of 80% from the previous year.
The pandemic has also forced nonprofits to adapt their methods of fundraising.
Last November, the Network raised $30,000 through donations by partnering with Arcadia University to host its annual Empty Bowl Dinner as a virtual event.
Later in the holiday season, the Network’s annual Walk of the Holy Family proceeded safely outdoors with members of six Chestnut Hill congregations coming together to celebrate Las Posadas, a Mexican pre-Christmas celebration that reenacts the journey of Mary and Joseph before the birth of Jesus.
According to Falkove, the money raised from this event was able to prevent 15 families from becoming homeless and much of its financial success came from local support.
“This community has sustained us greatly during COVID, not just in terms of our organization, but they really have sustained our families and that’s amazing,” she said.
Falkove has overseen the development of what she calls the Network’s ‘holistic continuum model’ while PIHN has grown from a one-program shelter to its current role as a community resource center.
“We don’t see families as social work ‘cases,’ that implies that a case can be opened and closed. When we see a family at risk of homelessness, there are different factors contributing to that, and it becomes a learning relationship.”
As the organization learned about the families and what makes a family at risk of poverty or homelessness, they started developing services that addressed those specific issues, she said.
“For some people, that means getting free diapers and material donations. For others, it might mean helping them deal with their child who might be having problems in school, or to help when a child is newly diagnosed with autism and the family needs guidance.”
The organization continues its regular food and diaper distribution each Saturday by giving boxes to those in need from a safe distance in the facility parking lot.
“We have a lot of people who are struggling with hunger in Philadelphia, but if your kids are hungry, you’re going to feed them. Food stamps get cut off and all of a sudden, it can be two months before you straighten it out to get your benefits turned back on again,” she said.
“We’re here in a way that helps families so that no matter what point in this fragile house of cards they’re in, we can have their back and get them covered.”